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PBJ Processors and Strawberry DNA

Girls from area schools learn about math and science careers.

Nine months after graduating from Duke University with a degree in Biological Anthropology, Reston resident Alexis Vaughan found herself volunteering at the Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) conference. Vaughan, who attended Crossfield Elementary School in Herndon, remembered attending the GEMS conference as a fifth and sixth grader.

"GEMS makes girls excited about careers that might sound boring," said Vaughan. She remembers attending the dentistry workshop 11 years ago. While dentistry was also one of the workshops at this year's conference — held on Saturday at Dogwood Elementary School — Vaughan said recent GEMS conferences have presented workshops with subjects that are much more computer and technology based than when she attended them. "What's really great is that you can meet women who are doing what you want to do," she said. "It's encouraging to see someone who looks like you do what you want to do."

According to Linda Martin, a teacher at Dogwood and co-coordinator of the conference, 300 girls and 150 parents from Cluster 8 schools registered for this year's conference. "Interest is great," said Martin. "People are volunteering to present, and are asking, 'Can I be a presenter,'" she said. This year's presenters included women in professions from physical therapy, computer engineering and medical practitioners, as well as students from some of the local high schools.

"Sometimes girls draw a little too much within the lines. Today you have the opportunity to draw outside the lines," said Martin as she addressed the fifth and sixth grade girls attending the conference. GEMS is designed to encourage girls of that age to take math and science courses, as they may serve them in their future education and career choices. "You start to dream big," said Martin before instructing the students towards their workshops on the second floor. In the meantime some parents attended workshops designed to give them ideas on how to encourage their daughters to take math and science courses in middle school and high school.

IN ONE OF THE WORKSHOPS students learned what it was like to write computer software. Their tools were a plastic knife, jars of peanut butter and jelly and two pieces of bread. They instructed their computer, presenter Nicole Rizzolo — a project engineer with Lockheed Martin — to put the peanut butter and then the jelly on to two pieces of bread. The two jars found themselves sandwiched between the two pieces of bread. The students all agreed that was not what they intended to instruct the computer to do.

"The computer is doing literally, exactly, what you say," said Rizzolo. She asked, "Why can't we tell computers what to do like we tell people what to do?"

Maddy Papile, a fifth grader at Terraset Elementary School, was quick to answer. "A computer doesn't have common sense," she said. The class then rewrote the instructions in much more detail to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

In another workshop, presented by two Lee High School students, the students extracted DNA from strawberries. Presenter Tsiga Solomon, a senior at Lee, said she enjoyed teaching biology to younger students.

"That is so cool! Can we go look at theirs," said Bianca Beers, a fifth grader at Deer Park Elementary School in Centreville, after her group extracted their strawberry's DNA. "It's cool to see the chemical reactions," said Ellen Cantor, a fifth grader at Forest Edge Elementary School.

"IT'S A WONDERFUL opportunity for the girls," said Keri McCluskey, a fourth grade teacher and science leader at Oakton Elementary School. "It's an education of all the careers in front of them, it shows all the doors," she said. "It's great for the girls to see and hear." Oakton Elementary brought 18 girls, and six parents, to the GEMS conference. She said the girls from the school seemed engaged and enthralled with the presentations, and she could not wait to talk to them about the presentations after the conference. "There is a wonderful variety of presenters," she said.

The American Association of University Women helps organize the conference each year. A member of the Reston-Herndon branch of AAUW, Carol Hurlburt, said the presenters have to be women professionals who have clever ideas for their presentations. "It's not just lecturing, but doing hands-on things," said Hurlburt.

Another member of the branch, Fran Lovaas, said GEMS is spreading into other areas of Fairfax County. Individual schools are starting to sprout their own GEMS clubs. While Saturday's conference had the backing of the Lockheed Martin Corporation, Lovaas said all that is needed to run a successful GEMS conference are students and volunteers.